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Learnings from a snack bar

Berlin, July 4, 2012

Veit Etzold and Urs Müller

An interview with Veit Etzold and Urs Müller, program directors at ESMT and authors of the case study “Konnopke’s Imbiss“, a well-known snack bar for “Currywurst”, a Berlin fast food invention. The study won the EFMD Case Writing Competition 2011 in the category “Family Business”.

Urs and Veit, you just published a case study on Konnopke’s Imbiss, a famous Currywurst snack bar in Berlin and won in a competition – what is so special about your case?

Urs: It shows that it is not necessary to follow the latest trends in management rules if you want to be successful. Executive education for managers tends to convey individual techniques until the participants are trained beyond intelligence. Our case stresses the importance of holistic thinking. The owner Waltraud Ziervogel has always gone her own way and has never lost sight of her customers and competitors. At the same time she has kept her own business in mind. The founding history and the corporate culture have an important impact on the success story of “Konnopke’s Imbiss“.

Veit: Waltraud Ziervogel‘s father Max Konnopke founded “Konnopke’s Imbiss” in Berlin in 1930. She started working at the company in 1958 and took over the business in 1976. No matter if outside was post-war Germany, GDR or reunited Berlin, Konnopke’s has always been there, solid as a rock. This has played a big part in establishing Konnopke’s cult status.

Why did you think that managers could learn something of the owner of a snack bar?

Urs: Good management skills are not exclusive to big companies. Smaller family businesses need to position themselves and take strategic important decisions just as well. “Konnopke’s Imbiss” is a special success story in Berlin. The snack bar under the train trestle in the “Prenzlauer Berg“ neighborhood is listed in almost all Berlin travel guides and has established itself as a Berlin original and trademark. But in 2010 Waltraud Ziervogel had to face difficult decisions.

What kind of decisions?

Veit: The local government and the transport company had said that the snack bar had to be closed for a year or more because of renovation work to the underground station. Sometimes these kinds of changes are a moment for rethinking the complete strategy of a company: Should Konnopke’s Imbiss expand? Move to a more convenient spot for tourists? Adapt to the very hip neighborhood “Prenzlauer Berg” and its nightlife? There was also the question of succession as both children of Waltraud Ziervogel were working in the business. 

How did Waltraud Ziervogel react in this situation?

Urs: In a different way than you would expect, certainly different from the recommendations of a textbook: There was no new strategic alignment but instead the snack bar reopened after the renovation in nearly identical form at the same place. Only the exterior of the snack bar was modernized and an outdoor area was enlarged. But Ms. Ziervogel did neither raise the prices nor enlarge the menu.

Veit: The story of “Konnopke’s Imbiss” shows that it is not always useful to expand and try to fit in a changing environment at every cost. For Waltraud Ziervogel the most important thing was the preservation of identity and brand core. This led to decisions like not offering extended opening hours, although there was a demand by night owls. But decisions like that do not have to be a disadvantage. Think about Apple which actually forbade customers in New York to buy more than two iPads at a time. Shortage can increase the value of a product. In the case of “Konnopke’s Imbiss“, this strategy paid off.  The long queues in front of the snack bar are impressive evidence of that.